Private Gods by Emily Hoffman

Emily Hoffman reviews the latest installment of Sarah Michelson’s Devotion series.

Michelson 2 Body

Devotion Study #3 has the quality of a vision. It begins when Nicole Mannarino, braced on the arms of two security guards, runs through the air into the MoMA atrium, and it ends 30 minutes later when Sarah Michelson, all in white, jogs out after her dancer who’s disappeared just as swiftly as she entered, followed by her suited retinue.

What the two conjure in the interim is something very close to the soul of dance. In the first of her Devotion pieces, Michelson drew her movement vocabulary from Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp, titans of 20th century American dance and in Michelson’s own artistic formation. In Devotion Study #3, she employs a more plain-spoken register. The referent here is a social dance of the sort you might see in a 1970s dance hall: feet swivelling from side to side, hips popping. But it is a ghost of a reference, a trace of desire for a setting, a partner. The movement is made sharp and hard in Michelson’s choreography: Mannarino’s legs are locked and her arms are pulled behind her back as she swivels. She drops into the occasional deep lunge and sometimes kicks high and forceful. It is exacting work, fast and sequential, not at all fluid. It is a choreography about effort, and it is charged with all the desire of becoming. It is hard work, and it is also joy: the joy comes from the effort. It is in every way a virtuosic performance.

But Michelson’s particular art is in harnessing virtuosity and using it to stunning psychic ends. The dance is in Mannarino’s body, but it’s also in her face. From the first, it is a study in interiority: gaze held low, mouth open in something wilder than a grimace or a grin—not a public face. The dance, formal though it is, is as much about the experience of the dancer moving through the choreography as it is about the movement itself. Mannarino occasionally lets out a (choreographed) scream from the sheer force of it. The quality of present feeling Mannarino brings to her performance is unlike anything I’ve seen. There is evidence here of a remarkable practice, of work whose fruit appears in the instance of performance as a sort of miracle.

The other face to watch is Michelson’s. It is the other half of the dyad which sits so potently at the core of the Devotion series: most plainly, choreographer/dancer, but also all of the other devotional dyads—god/supplicant, mother/child, lover/beloved. Michelson, curled over a DJ booth, accompanies Mannarino with 70’s soul music (stripped of its bass), played at the low volume of a private perception, a crystalline thought. Michelson’s whole being is oriented towards Mannarino: she rocks towards her, mouths along to the music in a kind of serenade, watches Mannarino’s every move. When Mannarino screams, Michelson mouths along. This quality of attention, too, I’ve never seen in public. The connection between Michelson’s gaze and Mannarino’s interiority is immediately apparent: the one carves the space for the other. That space is electric.

It is both a figurative space and a literal one—the atrium at the MoMA—and it is transfigured almost beyond recognition. Michelson and Mannarino build it slowly, Mannarino working only at the periphery of the atrium, often in its corners. She has one sequence thrillingly close to a column, another in a far corner near a cluster of guards frozen in formation, as if in a far-off region of the mind. She strides across the center periodically, but never dances there. Each time she crosses, though, the space through which she moves is more charged, absorbed into the world of vision and presence.

It is riveting, not least because it is uneasy to watch such control exerted by one being over another. One gets the sense that just as Michelson is playing her favorite songs over the speakers, she’s also playing her favorite dance on Mannarino—Mannarino is instrumental in that way. There’s also the matter of the costume. Mannarino wears blue short shorts, a tight blue polo, white tennis shoes, and pigtails teased out into large balls on either side of her head. The girlish vulnerability the clothing accentuates (one of Michelson’s talents is seeing what’s already there and making it so that everyone else can too) is striking, painful and effective, especially in contrast to Michelson’s more modest white skirt, shirt, and tennis shoes (Imagine Baby June and Mama Rose hit the country club). And you can’t help the feeling that Mannarino, arms clasped tightly behind her back, giving everything to the choreography that is so sharply controlling her, really is dancing for Michelson. Devotion does not seem like an overstatement.

But this isn’t the only valence of that word in the work, only the most obvious. A startling event occurs around two-thirds of the way into the piece. (I should have looked at my watch to see exactly; the timing was a lesson in composition). James Tyson, shirtless and in black pants, streaks into the atrium and begins to dance. Never has an entrance felt so shocking, so violent, so filled with grace. Tyson’s choreography is similar to Mannarino’s, but his execution could not be more different: he’s all attention, all fluidity, all lithe male body. After watching Mannarino’s staccato control, it is a punch in the gut to remember that people can move like that. To ad insult to injury, the dutiful Mannarino doesn’t even look up, doesn’t notice him, doesn’t break for a minute. Only Michelson shifts her gaze to Tyson, taking in this apparition. And, like an apparition, he’s streaking out again before you know it. He was there for maybe 30 seconds. I don’t think I breathed the entire time.

If the dance were an allegory, Tyson might stand in for any number of elusive figures: the presence of the divine, lost love, the propitious moment. In a more generous reading, he might be the presence Mannarino’s dance is capable of summoning. But it is the power of great dance to materialize presence without attending analysis: he is there, and then he is gone, and that is felt, deeply and suddenly, like a lightning bolt of grief.

As much as there is joy in this work, there is also an abiding sadness. It is in the nature of devotion, which is, however relational, a fundamentally solitary stance. Mannarino puts herself at the mercy of Michelson, who, in turn, sits at the feet of other gods: Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp, an idea of the pursuit of dance, perhaps—whatever panoply of private gods occupy her particular internal life. There is no such thing as mutuality in this world, still less, equality. And there is no small degree of violence. But there is also commitment like you’ve never seen: of the dancer to her choreographer, the choreographer to her dancer, and, each, through the other, to dance itself. There is something deeply dignifying in this exchange, in this work. And it is dignifying, too, to encounter.

Emily Hoffman is a writer and critic living in New York City.

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